Last night the coaching program I’m in had a teaching call with Desiree Adaway: “Leading difficult conversations on race, class + gender. Writer. Speaker. Coach.” (From Desiree’s Facebook profile.)
Desiree talked with us about intersectional feminism and read pieces from Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider. We discussed anger as fuel, “accountability with care,” the fact that we’ve been socialized to fear each other (and it’s in our DNA), white people forging relationships with people of color, fixing our communities by caring for the person who needs the most help first (and then by default the most privileged will also be taken care of — THIS IS HUGE), that we need to decide what kind of world we want to build once we’ve dismantled the current patriarchy (like, where are we headed as opposed to what are we leaving), and this:
“What are you willing to give up so that your sisters can gain?”
And we’re not just talking cis-ters, Desiree made sure to point out.
Eventually some of us spoke up. I spoke up. And then had a vulnerability hangover, of course. This old refrain:
Am I saying the right thing? Am I saying the wrong thing? Jesus Christ, now I’m sacrificing my own integrity and authenticity by worrying about saying the right/wrong thing. And then. Breathe. We’ll get through this. There is so much to gain here.
But first — what to lose. I mentioned on the call that I had decided fairly young I was willing to give up Catholicism and the community there because I didn’t like how women aren’t considered as holy as men (or cannot hold authoritative positions in the church). I didn’t like how women’s rights aren’t considered. That men make decisions about women’s bodies. That homosexuality is considered a sin. Hell, that sexuality is considered a sin. That the people of other religions are looked upon as not “chosen," and I knew a lot of them — Jewish friends, Muslim friends, Jehovah’s Witness friends, and they were all beautiful and holy to me. And then there are some Christian religions where, for example, black people weren’t allowed to hold the priesthood until the 1970s.
The more I followed my own inner-rudder and what I still intrinsically believe is right and true the more it took me away from a place where I grew up, made the sacraments, felt safe. The image of that schism for me is that I’m floating out in the cold cosmos, beyond the stained glass windows looking in on the warm Saint Gabriel’s church where I grew up, but feeling right about it. Even if the beautifully powerful pipe organ I always loved the sound of seemed to ring out more righteously than my own small voice. I would just have to know in my heart and that would be enough.
I remember one day in my early twenties seeing footage of Pope John Paul II cupping the faces of young girls, who were crying at his touch. They felt safe and spiritually sound. Comforted. Like all would be OK. You could see it on their faces. And I longed for that comfort. But I decided in that moment I was willing to give up that comfort for my integrity and for all the people who weren’t treated how I’d like them to be treated by the Church. Don’t get me started on the children and how the Church dealt with those horrors. So, I wanted that comfort but the price was not worth it to me — being complicit in hypocrisy (and so much worse).
I am also willing to give up the comfort and safe feeling of not having the difficult conversations. Of not correcting people when they say something racist or ignorant. And then doing that with love, as Desiree suggested: “Accountability with care.”
Desiree talked about loving her community more than she hates racism. For me, part of what I’m willing to give up is the comfort of the tribe within some of my community circles in order to foster honesty and love for all without any guarantee I’ll be accepted by all. To continue to share that steadfast integrity that took me away from the Church as a young person (and to continue to dismantle what’s been systemically ingrained into me). I was willing to float out in the cosmos then, I’m willing to float out in the cosmos now. Though I suspect, as I have a blindingly bright community of women, I won’t be floating too much. I’m not even close to alone this time.
And when we ask, “What are we willing to lose so that our sisters can gain,” I think we also should consider: “What are we going to gain when we give up what we give up so that our sisters can gain?” I feel we will gain something far more profound than what we give up. Not that we need incentive to do this work. But it’s there. Because we’re just changing the world is all (and when I say “we” I mean people of color leading the way — because everyone benefits from that, whereas if it’s white women trying to lead the way, we don’t have the ingrained experience of oppression to know the exact spots that need to heal). Giving up the old systems that kept white people feeling the illusion of power. Healing.
I have some questions, like how do we use anger as fuel in the best way? And how do we learn to trust each other? As we’ve been afraid of each other due to how we’ve been socialized and centuries of oppression. I guess we start talking about it more. And stop talking. (As was also discussed on the call.) Listening. Compassion. The word “compassion” keeps coming back to me. But not expecting compassion from others. Taking care of ourselves with compassion so we are fed and ready.
And I’ll have more questions. And I pray for the strength to ask. But I see a glimmer of hope — the door that was built between women of color and white women by the patriarchy is cracked open, and I hope we can all see at least a sliver of light there. Because the truth is, together we are powerful as can be. Powerful enough to heal and thrive together. The truth is NOT what we’ve been socialized to believe. The truth is deeper and it lies in our shared traumas and joys — whether or not we know each other personally.
And of course it's not just about white people and people of color. It's also about classes and disabilities and LGBTQ people for lack of a better acronym and any number of mixtures therein. It behooves the patriarchy that we stay separate. I read a great piece today including a bit about "check your privilege," which said when you hear that, look down your ladder of privilege toward the chute where someone else might be at a disadvantage or marginalized and see where you can extend a hand and help.
Just because the hegemonic patriarchal systems that be say “You are separate” doesn’t mean it’s spiritually true. Yeah, there’s a lot of pain there. But just like women always do, we’ll figure it the hell out together and move this ship forward. And that’s going to light up the whole sky. I don’t want to get too ahead of ourselves, but it’s a future I want. And yet, it doesn’t matter what kind of future I want (except for any usefulness the heft of my intentions might hold). So I’ll listen and see what I can help tear down and where I can help build.
“Dear Sister(not just cister),
“At the center of liberation is love. Love of self, love of others, love of community, love of humanity.” Desiree Lynn Adaway
It's me, Jennifer Bernice (rhymes with "Furnace": it was my Granny's name) Sutkowski
• More details about my writing here.